Persecuting Pee-wee

A Child-Porn Case That Threatens Us All

Consider the photo of a beaming, bare-bottomed 12-year-old boy holding a pole that appeared in the July 1963 issue of Manorama. Back then, it would have seemed charming to many viewers and arousing to a few. Today this same image would make most people faintly nauseous. An image that once seemed tender, since its sexual meaning was repressed, is now terrifying because it reads as explicitly erotic. The process of sensitizing us to child porn also forces us to eroticize children. Whether we intend to or not, we begin to see the world from a pedophile's perspective.

In a climate where the definition of a child can be so ambiguous that prosecutors have to call in pediatricians to decide whether a model is underage, and where cops pore over thousands of images looking for evidence of a sex crime without ever considering intent, the concept of sexual abuse is transformed into something else. It becomes a tool for policing all sorts of desire. Adolescents are governed by it, since they are all children under the law. Gay men are implicated by it, since they are all subject to the stereotype that homos are child molesters. Everyone is prone to worry about what might lurk in the recesses of the imagination. And what of the girl who grows up with the constant message that she's a sex object for adults? "As we expand our gaze and bend it to the will of child pornography law," writes Adler, "we transform the world into a pornographic place."

The virtue of vintage erotica is that it leaves an ambiguous space between the image and its meaning. It could be perverse; it could be manly display. This is also the secret of Pee-wee's appeal. He straddled the boundary between man and boy, straight and gay, sexual and innocent. By setting his queer comedy in a children's show he aroused all sorts of adult anxieties. What if this childlike man is actually a pervert? How can he not be?

photo: Sylvia Plachy

"I think he's very vulnerable," says Debbie Nathan, co-author of Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt. "People who speak to kids while doing all this subversive stuff have a hard time when it comes down on them. You get the feeling that he doesn't know how to politicize what's going on. And the gay movement has evolved to the point where it won't address this stuff." For that matter, Reubens has never said he's gay. Like the erotica he collects, he prefers to be ambiguous. But as an emblem of an older, anarchic queerness, he's as significant as any vintage treasure.

In a just world, Reubens could respond to the charges against him in Pee-wee's immortal words: "I know you are, but what am I?" In America today, we have to say that for him.

Research assistance: Rebecca Winsor

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